By Siran Seza
The following story was written by Siran Seza in April 1946. Seza was the penname of Siranoush Zarifian, a Lebanese-Armenian writer born in Constantinople in 1903. She is best known for founding the Beirut-based feminist journal The Young Armenian Woman (Երիտասարդ Հայուհի)in 1932.
After attending Armenian, French and American schools as a child, Seza graduated from the American College for Girls in Constantinople in 1919. Her grasp of English allowed her to continue her education in the United States. She moved to New York in the late 1920’s to pursue a master’s degree in literature and journalism at Columbia University. After graduating in 1931, she settled in Beirut where she established herself as a leader in the Lebanese-Armenian intellectual community until her death in 1973.
Her greatest contribution to this intellectual community was The Young ArmenianWoman, a journal that she edited through its entire run from 1932-34 and again from 1947-68. Through this journal, Seza sought to bring Armenians into the global conversation on women’s rights. To this end, she had the ideas of American social reformers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as leaders of the Arab women’s movement, like Emily Nasrallah and Doria Shafik, translated into Armenian and published them alongside original articles by Armenian contributors of both sexes.
She was particularly concerned with expanding education for Armenian women and girls with the goal of preparing them to participate both within the Armenian community and in Lebanese society more broadly. This included stressing the importance of Arabic among Armenian women to facilitate inter-communal collaboration and work towards improving the lives of all the women of Lebanon.
In addition to her journal, Seza also published short fiction in Diasporan Armenian newspapers like the Hairenik in Boston and Nayiri in Aleppo. Her pieces were eventually collected in two volumes, The Barricade(Պատնէշը) (1959) and The Sinning Woman(Մեղաւորուհին)(1960). The following story is included in the latter collection.
The Child of a Refugee emerges out of a particular movement that was gaining momentum in the Armenian Diaspora in 1946. Beginning that year, the Soviet government spearheaded a campaign to encourage migration to Soviet Armenia from Armenian Diasporan communities worldwide.
Between 1946 and 1947, 100,000 Armenians left their homes in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East to settle in Soviet Armenia. The immigrants were largely drawn to the opportunities described in the propaganda that flooded their newspapers in the diaspora: free education and housing as well as good healthcare and steady employment.
What they found once they arrived was an impoverished country that was relying on them to build the infrastructure they had been promised. In Soviet Armenia, food shortages, disease, and discrimination defined the initial experiences of many Diasporan Armenians who had been led to believe they were not only moving to a land of plenty, but to a homeland where they would be welcomed as brothers and sisters.
The Child of a Refugee is an intimate look at the forces that drove one mother to leave Beirut for Soviet Armenia.
The way that slur was shot at Simonig pierced his heart and plunged deep into his chest like an arrow. He raised his fist with the overwhelming urge of a boy ready to hurl an entire mountain at his enemy. Simonig’s entire body tensed with uncontrollable anger, but instead of reacting, he spit, kicked a rock off the side of his foot, sending it flying, and hung his head. He remembered his mother.
Simonig’s mother strictly forbade him from getting into arguments with their neighbor Wehbi. Simonig was the newcomer and Wehbi was the local; his mother’s smacks and reprimands made this very clear. She was profoundly grateful to the Lebanese; when ships full of Armenians were bobbing on the surface of the water, after having been refused by everyone else, Wehbi’s people nobly allowed the poor refugees to come ashore. They welcomed them, helped them earn a decent living and keep their dignity.
Simonig had heard all of this a thousand times. He had even tried to feel grateful, but whenever Wehbi found himself losing a game, even by a little, he would fling that slur at Simonig and it would feel like he had been hit by a snowball with a rock inside. Simonig’s entire body would shake with fury.
A few times, he tried not to play with the local boys, but the Armenian part of the neighborhood had narrow, winding streets that made it impossible to play on them. Instead, everyone had to play in the same open field. And that was where Wehbi and his friends would come and mix with the Armenian boys. Everything would be fine for a little while, but then all of a sudden, a fight or an argument would start. The Arab boys would leave, sneering Ermen as they left, and the Armenian refugee boys would stand there bewildered, not knowing which of them felt like starting up the game again. They stood in silence and stared down at the ground as though they had all just taken a blow to the head. Then each boy slowly walked back to his tin house.
The children’s despair would become even greater whenever the adults would talk about the wonderful life they had left behind in the homeland. A homeland that had been snatched from them. Everything there seemed so idyllic that these deprived, half-starving boys and girls were filled with hatred for the Turks who had turned them into refugees.
That evening, Simonig returned home slightly more distraught and didn’t help his mother at all. Even after a slap across his right cheek and a punch in the back, he refused to bring water from the spring nearby. He seemed more restless than usual, and without dinner, he went to lie down on the small mattress spread out on the floor.
His mother was a widow. With her grueling work, she could barely support her emaciated body and that of her only son, but she was too proud to ask for help from charitable or religious organizations. She dressed her son as best she could, fed him and paid for him to go to the Armenian school, so that Simonig had a chance at becoming someone. Oftentimes, she would be filled with bitterness when she saw that reading a simple letter was a great challenge for him. After an hour, he might have barely managed to sound out a couple of words, but she could never have deprived her son of an Armenian education. She had decided she would send Simonig to school until he got his diploma. The rest was up to God. She had no other dreams. She only hoped that that piece of paper would help her son find a job better than the one he could have gotten if he hadn’t gone to school at all.
A lantern in hand, the mother walked toward her son, who was pretending to sleep, and shook him by the shoulder.
– “Get up and go have dinner!”
– “I don’t want to,” Simonig said stubbornly, sinking his head deeper into the pillow.
– “What happened this time,” asked his mother, trying to ease her son’s pain with her interest. “Did you get into a fight again?”
– “A fight? Would you let me get into a fight? You’ve practically turned me into a girl like you,” Simonig grumbled, releasing the bile that had filled his chest.
– “And if you hadn’t been a girl, what would you have done,” his mother asked, laughing at her son’s outburst and the aggression he could barely control.
Simonig pushed himself up onto his elbows abruptly and looked directly at his mother. His patience had run out. His mother’s snickering made his tense nerves even tenser.
– “What should I do? What should I do?” Unable to continue, he put his head back on the pillow and pulled the blanket up to his eyes.
His mother fell silent. She recognized her son’s torment. After a long inner struggle, her mother’s instinct told her it was better not to excite her son’s naturally excitable nerves even more. Her heart broke knowing that her son would go to bed hungry, but she picked up the lantern and left the room without another word.
After a small bite to eat, she put Miss Angèle’s bundle on the table. The light from the lantern wasn’t enough, but Aznive had to work and finish her sewing as quickly as possible. She had bought too much on credit at too many places.
As she was taking something that needed to be sewn out of the bundle, her eyes fell onto the newspaper that had been wrapped around the clothes to keep them clean. Sometimes she would read one or two lines of a newspaper that passed through her hands in an attempt to maintain her limited grasp of her mother tongue. As a young girl, it was a great dream of hers to continue her education. But fate had willed differently. Life at her stone school had been so different, so light and carefree. She hadn’t lived the life of a gypsy like Simonig. Back then, life had a certain order to it—there was the Sunday routine at her centuries-old church, the routine at the school and at home. In those surroundings, there wasn’t the constant pressure to interact with locals. Simonig was right to be upset, but what could they do? What could she do? Let him get into fights? Many times, the children’s arguments came to rest on the shoulders of the adults.
With an anguished sigh, she put down the newspaper, but as she did, her eyes were drawn to a large headline: NEWS FROM ARMENIA. She moved the paper closer to the lantern and read:
In Armenia, every child is required to go to school. There are wonderful places for the children to play and they are constantly supervised by adults trained in pedagogy. The children are brought to school by train and have special classes in theater, music, dance, and visual art.
Aznive read, surrendering herself to an enchantment like no other. She didn’t feel the difficulty she usually felt whenever she tried to read. The article seemed to be taken right out of a storybook. She pulled a chair closer and sat down. It was as though the words formed on her lips by themselves and took on depth and meaning.
She stared at the page even after finishing the article. Armenia! As she gazed down at the paper, her entire life passed before her eyes and all of her hopes and sufferingflew towards that poor homeland, that Armenia that was just out of reach. She loved it. She yearned for it with untold sorrow and nostalgia. How many times had she, powerless in her wounded pride, lamented the bitter fate of her poor homeland?
Now a completely new image was gliding up from the depths of her dreams. Here was a nation, subjected to persecution and massacre and sentenced to live with its head bowed for eternity, that had risen from the valley of tears to the summit of its undeniable potential. The adults, content in their noble work, guidedthe children as they grew. The Armenian children had schools, theaters, special places to play, and all the opportunities to become someone. On their own soil. In their own culture. In great anticipation of better days still to come.
She reached to pick up her sewing. Under Aznive’s skillful fingers, Miss Angèle’s dress was gradually taking shape. Aznive had thought about the major difference between her life and Miss Angèle’s life many times before and had grown slightly resentful. Now, though, Aznive derived a special kind of pleasure from her work. So what if Miss Angèle had lots of dresses, while Aznive only had one that she patched and mended? In the homeland, there were many women like her. They worked, so that their children could become someone.
She stopped again and looked at the newspaper. What use would her modest life and hard work be, if Simonig continued to live in a foreign land and after years of deprivation barely knew how to read or write? What use would this series of proud, half-starving days be for a respectable widow like Aznive, if her only son continued to grow up in a polluted environment full of dirty shacks, subjected to poor teachers and the disdain of the local children? What would really happen to Simonig if he got his diploma? After begging a thousand people, his mother would barely be able to get him an apprenticeship. Maybe he would be clever enough to steer clear of those men who fill the cafés of the refugee camps, drowning their daily disgust in card games, vodka, and Turkish curses until their surroundings slowly started to feel like home, but all the while marring the Armenian spirit beyond recognition. But Simonig, so sensitive and excitable, would be driven into the claws of those men at the first sign of failure. It had happened to the children of so many other decent families.
Drawing the thread through the needle, Aznive thought of some of the boys she knew. Some had managed to pull themselves up out of the mud of the refugee camp and buy their own homes and shops in affluent parts of the city, where they got richer and richer. One of these boys was Bedros Garsenian, whose wife now wore a fur coat and gold jewelry. This pale woman would never entrust her precious fabrics to a respectable widow like Aznive. She preferred a well-known seamstress who would overcharge her.
She bitterly put down her sewing and picked up the paper again. Under her eyes was that storybook tale. Schools, playgrounds, theaters, music. Everything was free and looked after by responsible people. A happy childhood. No neighborhood councils, no school trustees, not even any favoritism. There was no humiliation. No child was ashamed of his poverty. The people had a calling and the children were prepared their callings based on their own special talents. She would sew, not because she was a poor widow, but because she wanted to be a seamstress. And what about Simonig? She searched her mind for what Simonig could become if he were given the opportunity to continue studying. The child had often expressed a desire to become an architect with the hopes of building bridges and wide boulevards.
– “In a few years, I could transform this refugee camp into a city of wonders,” he said one winter night when mother and son were huddled together in bed, drawing on dreams of happier days to keep warm.
– “Wait! Let me go to America, earn some money, and come back,” her son decided, before sleep conquered him.
America! That bewitching land across the ocean was the dream of all Armenian refugee children. That land began charming them before they could even walk or talk and pulled them towards it in a stubborn pursuit that lasted years. What was there in America that was all that authentic? If it wasn’t the bitterness of the Armenian fate, what was there in America that could speak to the Armenian heart and sustain Armenian life? That faraway land swallowed up everything like a bottomless pit. Those who went to America, group after group, would fall undetected into the pit and after a while no one would be able recognize Hovhannes of Keghi behind the American pipe and glasses of Mr. John.
Simonig would end up like this, too. After achieving his dream, he would be enslaved by the cold reality. He would send a check with a short note every month until the day when an American girl would come and put a stop to it. Put a stop to the check that his mother needed to live. Why wouldn’t she? Then there was Koharig hanim, who cried for years and years after her son’s death until an acquaintance happened to mention that the boy was alive and well. He had married an American girl and had a couple of kids. He proudly raced his shiny, new car down the wide streets of Detroit, while his son Freddie would laugh to his friends, saying, “My dad is Armenian. He’s from Marash. Where is Marash? It’s a place in Turkey. A terrible place.”
Koharig hanim would go to the neighbors for coffee and praise the Lord that her son was alive, even though he had forgotten his elderly mother.
Aznive picked up her sewing again. A fear like no other had now filled her chest. It was as if she had suddenly recognized Freddie’s unfamiliar face. He had transformed into Simonig. Aznive felt tears on her eyelashes. She pushed her sewing aside again and picked up the newspaper.
Who was the writer? Was he trying to trick her? Was this a story written just to make miserable people even sadder? She looked for the writer’s name. There wasn’t one. She carefully read through the article again. The writer was Armenian and had just returned from Armenia. He had seen everything he wrote about with his own eyes. He had seen it. Aznive relaxed and smiled to herself as she looked at the lines on the page. The words to a nostalgic song rose to her lips. It was a song from her childhood, stubbornly hiding in her memories, that formed its melancholy tune.
Aznive folded the newspaper very carefully and put it in her bag. She picked up her sewing and packed it up. That night, she didn’t feel like working any more.
Aznive studied the boy’s face in the soft light of the lantern. She had come into the room on her tiptoes and walked toward Simonig’s bed. A lock of hair had fallen onto his forehead while the child was sleeping and one of his fists was on top of the blanket. Aznive looked at him with concern. She was desperate to know what her little boy was dreaming about. It saddened her to think that perhaps he thought he was old enough to leave for America. Freddie’s face, with Simonig’s features, passed before her eyes, which were now filled with worry. But she put that terrifying idea aside once and for all. As long as she was alive, Simonig would never go to America.
Aznive switched off the lantern, mumbled her usual prayers, and made the sign of the cross three times over her sleeping boy. She stayed there in the dark with her eyes wide open. This wasn’t a dream. She was sure of it. A final decision rose from the depths of her being like a strong, clear majestic ray of light, infusing warmth and life into her weary nerves. The decision to create a new life for herself and for her son gradually became so overpowering that every obstacle, every sacrifice melted away. Going through with the decision was all that remained.
She and Simonig would leave for the homeland. It was the only place where the life of a respectable, hardworking widow like Aznive would have meaning, the only place where her son could grow up with pride in his nation. His local friends would never again sneer Ermen, because they would be filled with admiration and respect upon seeing the bridges and boulevards that Simonig had dreamed into reality, all without enslaving himself to the bewitching allure of gold.
When the rosy dawn delicately lifted the cool veil over the hills of Lebanon and the first rays of light fell through the windows of the rich and poor, Aznive and Simonig were still sleeping. Light danced on their faces and a beautiful smile restored youth to the exhausted widow’s features.